Can Lewis Hamilton become as big as The Beatles? Just as the British ‘Fab Four’ conquered the States in the mid-1960s, now F1’s reigning world champion is trying his hardest to be a hit there too.
As network TV current affairs shows go, CBS’s 60 Minutes is about as big as it gets in America. So when Lewis Hamilton got his 15 minutes of fame this week, it was a pretty big deal as he seeks to raise his profile in the U.S. – a country that loves a good-looking sporting phenomenon.
There’s no denying that Formula 1 is a niche sport in the States, no matter how big its global footprint, nor the fact it has been a part of the World Championship right back to the 1950s.
Hamilton’s third world title was recently sealed on American soil, at Austin, Texas, and he often says he feels a great affinity with the country. Yet his profile there is limited, when compared to homegrown sports heroes or the likes of imports such as tennis megastar Roger Federer, sprinter Usain Bolt and soccer ace David Beckham.
His story was aired to a prime-time American audience on Sunday, with veteran correspondent Charlie Rose travelling to Silverstone for some high-speed thrills, a tour of the Mercedes factory in Brackley and a trip down memory lane to the Rye House kart track where Lewis’s rags-to-riches racing journey began.
Hamilton, 30, has grown very consistent in his interviews, so there was little revelatory answers to any of Rose’s questions, beyond a brief mention of racial prejudice he faced in his early days – which he rarely speaks of.
When probed on the race subject, Hamilton replied: “I mean, I had parents come to me, other drivers' parents would come up to me and be sort of, "You don't belong here. Go back to wherever you came from.”
His father Anthony is also interviewed, and their relationship – including the split in their driver/manager partnership – is a cornerstone of the tale.
The story is a compelling one, from humble beginnings in Hertfordshire, England to his jetsetting ways of today as a three-time F1 world champion, owning his own private jet, the plush apartment in Monte Carlo – all the trappings you’d expect of his sporting fame.
What it didn’t tell you...
Surprisingly, the 60 Minutes piece didn’t really reflect the fact that Hamilton is actually spending a vast amount of his time in America these days, pursuing his other passions in life of fashion and music.
It’s only on the CBS website, where there are a couple of extra interview snippets that didn’t make the TV show cut, where his latest off-track exploits are even mentioned.
“This is where I spend a lot of my time now,” he says in the music studio. Hamilton is good friends with Pharrell Williams and Kanye West among others, while NBA star Carmelo Anthony is also a buddy.
“It started as a hobby, but now it’s got to the point where it’s serious and I spend a lot of time here. If I’m not training, or getting ready for the race, I’m here.”
No mentions at all of Nicole Scherzinger, the U.S. singer and TV personality, with whom Hamilton has had an off-on personal relationship for almost a decade. Nor of his recent partying antics that have raised questions from some inside the F1 paddock of his commitment to the sport.
But that is the real dilemma for Hamilton right now. Is he just another elite sportsman, or a potential mainstream media darling?
And while we might see him at many a fashion show or music awards ceremony, with supermodels like Gigi Hadid on his arm, many believe that’s exactly how a Formula 1 World Champion should be acting away from the track.
Helping shape the image
Will that ‘playboy’ tag endear him to an American audience? It’s hard to see how it would hurt.
He’s not about to gain the profile to make him a regular in TV commercials, but he’s becoming quite the regular on the chatshow scene. His latest appearances were on fellow Brit James Corden’s Late Late Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live. The latter included a backstage exchange with Sascha Baron Cohen (another Brit!) where his Borat character made a racially-offensive remark, which Hamilton laughed off (and was happy to tweet).
Recall too it was another of Baron Cohen’s characters that sparked Hamilton’s live TV gaffe at Monaco in 2011 when he was penalized by stewards: “Maybe it’s because I’m black… That’s what Ali G says!”
The misjudged ‘joke’ backfired massively, with Hamilton forced into a quickfire apology for questioning the stewards’ motivations in making a sporting ruling against him.
In recent times, in an effort to smooth his image, he’s hopped management teams from Simon Fuller’s XIX stable to New York/London-based Purple, who also represent Beyonce and Prince among others.
It’s this crossover of sportsman/fashion icon/musician that Hamilton seems keen to become, even though his top-level F1 career could easily last another 10 years.
So what’s next?
It's an urban myth that Hamilton’s given and middle names are in deference to legendary American sprinter and long jumper Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist who went on to become an actor and even tried politics.
Question is, while Hamilton’s sporting credentials are creeping up to all-time-great status in his sport, despite his humble beginnings, can he too transcend the boundary into household name status like the man that many believe he is named after?
Then again, who would have predicted that four cocky lads from Liverpool would become the hottest band in America for a time?
‘Beatlemania’ was one thing, but if ‘Lewismania’ – primarily reserved for the British Grand Prix right now – is to be achieved in the U.S., it's going to require many more hard days’ nights.